Cannabis accounts for 83 per cent of all drug offences in Britain-yet the drug causes neither violence nor death. Alcohol, a legal drug, causes some 25,000 deaths a year. Duncan Campbell examines the arguments for and against legalising some drugs and wonders why the issue is being debated more seriously in the police force than in parliamentby Duncan Campbell / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Take three court cases in February this year. In the first, in a court in Larnaca, Cyprus, a member of the Royal Greenjackets regiment explains during his trial for manslaughter how he had been so drunk when he had battered a Danish tour guide with a spade, that he could not remember which of his two fellow soldiers, both also drunk, had actually beaten her to death. In the second, at Worcester crown court, a man is convicted of selling by mail order, through Private Eye and Viz magazines, a book that teaches people how to grow cannabis and is warned by the judge that he faces a custodial sentence. In the third, at Warrington crown court, the prosecution offers no evidence against a man who has been arrested in possession of cannabis and has argued that it helps to alleviate the pain he suffers from Von Hippel Lindau Disease.
Alcohol, the drug referred to in first of the three cases, is legal. The drug in the second and the third cases is not. According to West Midlands police recent research the legal drug is associated with 82 per cent of public order offences and 43 per cent of assaults. It is estimated to cause 25,000 deaths a year. The illegal drug is not associated with violence and there are no known deaths attributed to it. Such anomalies might have been expected to provoke debate in a late 20th century democracy; yet there is virtually none.
Or rather, there is no party political discussion about drugs at the moment, mainly because the difference between the two main parties is as thin as a Rizla cigarette paper. But there is a debate taking place within the police, in the press, and on the streets where in some parts of the country a caution is seen as sufficient punishment for possession of heroin, while elsewhere 30 year sentences are handed out in cocaine smuggling cases.
what happened to the political debate?
In July 1967, a famous advertisement stating that “the law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice” appeared in The Times. It was signed by 64 distinguished names, including academics, politicians, writers and doctors. Twenty years later, almost all-except for Jonathan Aitken and Brian Walden, who had become politicians-still believed that the law should change. If anything, however, change seems less likely now than then. Public opinion polls still show a majority opposed to legalisation.